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Laki and his owls: he’s lost track of how many he’s sketched, sculpted and painted into life but the closest you’ll ever come to seeing them in the same place is in a book launched last week. ‘Laki’s Book of Owls’ delivers exactly what the title promises
Laki once put an ad in a paper, offering to buy back his own paintings. So prolific that he’s lost count, he knows only that his work is out there in the world. Looking at this slice of it collected together here appears to give him the greatest pleasure – he says his real hope is to see his entire oeuvre represented in one book. But so varied is his work that photographs and reprints alone cannot hope to do them justice. Take his sculptures for instance – the mesh of wires that seem to have fallen into a shape with outstretched wings; the little owl sculpted of burnished metal that perches on the roof of his home in Diyabubula – they become a part of the landscape he places them in.
Flipping through this book, one could be forgiven for pausing to reconfirm all these works were indeed by the same artist. Laki is the happy victim of a kind of multiple-artist disorder – someone who produces the most incredibly detailed and accurate botanical paintings and then transitions into a fierce water colour of a mythic beast before slipping in to the bright,warped shapes of an abstract. Along the way, he takes another detour, to play with a photograph of a fibre glass boat in the sunshine, and convert it into – what else? – an owl.
Clad in an orange sarong and a t-shirt with a tiny, white flower tucked behind one ear, Laki is in great form as he discusses his book. He has a particularly fine repertoire of grisly and ominous tales about owls, most of which he would have readily believed as a child. Growing up on his family’s estate in Madampe, Laki says he heard the owls cry out at night and was terrified of them. (In his nightmares, an enormous owl stood watch over the outdoor latrine.)When his brother “foolishly” shot an owl, Laki got his first chance to look at one up close and he’s been a little obsessed ever since. As an adult, he can only marvel at the place they claim in the legends and myths of the world – from being known as a harbinger of death and tragedy in Sri Lanka to being hailed as the wisest of birds and the companion of the goddess Athena in ancient Greece.